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Michael Dorris

Video of a talk given at The University of Minnesota Duluth by Michael Dorris, "Saving Grace: The Waste and Destruction of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome," which discusses his and Louise Erdrich's son "Adam."

(Recorded at The University of Minnesota Duluth on 09 January 1990, VC 1716.)


"Michael Dorris describes the signs of fetal alcohol syndrome and tells of his experiences raising three adopted children who suffer from this birth defect. He also discusses some ethical issues for the future."


Audience: UMD, esp. American Indians (primarily Chippewa / AKA Anishinabe / Ojibway)




Ben Ramiriz-Shkwegnagbi introduction of Michael Dorris

    • notes Michael Dorris's ties with the audience
      • he is of Indian descent, and. . . .
    • thanked people who needed to be thanked
      • sponsors (organizations)
      • sponsors (individuals)
    • briefly reviews Michael Dorris's status and why he is an authority
      • training . . . , works . . . , currently professor at Dartmoth. . . .

Michael Dorris Talk

    1. Introduction (back to outline)

      1. thanks. . . . (Linda Belote and organizations)
      2. joke, "I'm Chippewa by marriage"
      3. "I'd rather not be here today."
        • introduced himself, and outlines what he is going to do
      4. notes that his topic, Foetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), is not a happy topic
      5. thesis Statement: FAS is the number one cause of birth defects in the US today, and it is preventable (note how often he repeats this during the talk)
      6. thoughts
        1. personal history ("I was an arrogant 25-year-old who believed absolutely that nuture was more important than nature. . . .") . . . "Adam's mother died of drinking anti-freeze. . . ."
        2. background of FAS thoughts:
          1. in 1971 medical authorities said but. . . ancient Greeks, Carthaginians. . . .
          2. In 1968, the year "Adam" was born French Scientists. . . .
            1. 1969 French study
            2. "FAS" in the 1970s
          3. But I didn't hear about FAS and though that "Adam's" problems were due to w, x, y, z. . . .
      7. definitions and characteristics of FAS and Foetal Alcohol Effect (FAE)
        1. including that this is "an incredibly variable phonomena"
        2. even today pamphlets suggest that FAS / FAE are not a problem
        3. culpable ignorance and simple ignorance

    2. Body (back to outline)

      1. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (back to outline)
        1. physical description
        2. background and personal experiences with "Adam," 22-years-old at the time of the lecture
          1. brain surgery
          2. work
          3. always will remain a child
          4. "Adam's" contribution to the book
        3. humor: Always wanted to be a novelist, but college critic stymied MD's efforts. . .
        4. "I didn't want to write this book. I wrote this book because I couldn't find it in the library. . . ."

      2. Case Study: "Adam" and and The Broken Cord (back to outline)
        1. read passage on "Adam" from The Broken Cord
          (HarperCollins, reprinted 1990)
          1. note the detail of the description in the passage that he reads
          2. note how he often uses a time sequence to organize the text: T1 --> T2 --> T3 --> Tn
        2. book
          1. 1500 letters
          2. generalizations
          3. repeats thesis: it's preventable
        3. self-analysis and reactions
          1. notes unfairness of the situation, because it is preventable
          2. "confession": I'm the worst kind of parent, bitter. . . .

      3. Results / Discussion (back to outline)
        1. nothing works
          1. schooling hasn't worked
          2. special schools working with learning disabilities hasn't worked
          3. psychiatric / psychological therapy hasn't worked
          4. group work hasn't worked
          5. brain surgery hasn't worked
          6. anger hasn't worked
          7. patience hasn't worked
          8. love hasn't worked
        2. discusses his other children's problems
          1. "I'm a product of over 50 years worth of working with alcohol affected children. . . ."
          2. note how he lists their problems and what he and his wife have have done (schools, money, doctors, special facilities, "every single avenue". . . .)
          3. note other lists of their problems
            1. listing what they can't/will not do
            2. how people take advantage of them. . . .
        3. "What the book yielded was worse than the least of what we had expected."
          1. lists the kinds of other parents that have the problem (from all social strata, education groups. . . .)
          2. lists the other parents' problems (mail)
            1. lists examples of individual problem chidren from the mail responses
            2. "The letter I've waited for is the one that begins, 'You're dead wrong,' but it has yet to arrive. . . ."
        4. address a major segment of the audience: "To what extent does this preventable scourage affect American Indian People?"
          1. the answer is ambiguous
            1. some things affect women from the country-club in Grenwich Connicitut to White Earth Reservation
            2. every human being is vulnerable during development
            3. ethnicity acts as neither a shield nor a magnet
            4. smoking, drinking age matters, diet counts, smoking or other drug use will make the damage done by alcohol worse. . . .
          2. but all things considered, physically, no one needs give birth to a FAS baby
        5. the factors that really make a difference include (recommendations)
          1. ephimeral things
            1. strong family/community support for abstenance
            2. access to good pre-natal care and chemical dependency treatment
            3. clear and wide-spread information on the dangers of drinking during pregnancy, and that information delivered by trusted members of families or communities
              1. it is here that American Indian women are at a disadvantage
              2. again, note list of the problems
          2. more data
            1. 14% of all babies born in this country are born at great risk of drug or alcohol pre-natal problems
            2. 300,000 per year = 3,000,000 people in 10 years
          3. raises questions
            1. How can our society handle this onslaught, either on a local or national level?
            2. How do we make laws that apply equally to those of us who can understand a rule, and to a significan minority who, through no fault of their own can not?
            3. How do we preserve . . . individual liberty . . . free choice . . . safe streets . . . mutual trust . . . when some members of society have only a glancing grasp of moral responsibility?
            4. How do we cope with the growing crime rate among young people, . . . while trying to teach the unteachable?
            5. The thorny ethical issue thathas troubled me most while thinking about the social impact of FAS and other such life-long but preventable affliction concerns responsilibty: When, if ever, are one-on-one collectively obliged to intervene? . . .
            6. It is becoming increasingly clear that FAS victimes beget more FAS victims. . . . And one who can not calculate the long-range consequences of her decision is a hard case for pre-natal counseling. . . .
              1. Studies show. . . .
              2. Statistically. . . .
            7. "These children are societies responsibility." Introduces a list of relevant questions:
              1. How do we cope?
              2. how do we pay the medical bills
              3. "premy FAS babies" cost more than $150,000
              4. How do we pay the medical bills?
              5. How do we train special education teachers how to function indefinitely with no hope of success?
              6. How do we teach oridinary citizens how to. . . ?
              7. How do we teach compassion for. . . ?
              8. How do we maintain . . . or redefine the legal system . . . ?
        6. solution: "To me these questions boil down to a simple analogy. Imagine we saw a blind woman leading the child across the road. . . ."
          1. more questions
            1. How many times does this have to happen before. . . ?
            2. How many times. . . ?
            3. How many times. . . ?
            4. How many times before we . . . X . . . or Y . . . or Z. . . .
            5. And how long before the mother herself is killed? Remember she is a victim and at great risk too. It does no good to blame her or punish her for blindness. . . . She needs help and we need to find a decent way to provide it.
          2. If we turn our backs and walk away, we stop being innocent bystanders, and become complicit in the inevitable accident, accessory after the fact.
        7. "We're not facing a crisis; we're in one."
          1. more statistics
            1. South Dakota statistics while 1/3 to 1/2 of the babies in certain communities were at high risk for alcohol-related problems
        8. repeats thesis: it's preventable

    3. Summary and Conclusion (back to outline)

      1. What can we do about it?
        1. scientists can study the problem. . . .
        2. others, advocates and politicians, can address the problem of prevention. . . .
        3. we can speak up, even when it makes our friends feel uncomfortable
        4. still others, social workers, educators and psychologists, can tackle the needs of the here and now. . . .
        5. we can try to devise effective curricula, learning regements and human regements for dependent care. . . .
        6. If we in this room. . . .
        7. repeats thesis: it's preventable
      2. parents can preserve a sense of humor
        1. another story of "Adam" (digging up burdocks), and "What book would that be?"
      3. reviews Louise Erdrich's (wife's) diary. . . , and suggests that they are in a small way the the forcast of things to come for this country:

    "FAS is not a problem whose impact is restricted to its victims. It is not just a woman's issue, not just a man's. No one is exempted. These are everybody's children."

  1. Question and Answer Session (back to outline)


Content: In his speech Michael Dorris utilizes . . . (back to outline)

  • transition
  • humor
    • note that he begins and ends with humor
    • and about halfway through, after a very heavy part of the talk, he introduces humor
      • what was the effect of that?
    • he ends with humor
  • definitions
  • quotations
    • including quoting himself
  • appeals to authority
    • Romans and Greeks
    • AMA
    • New England Journal of Medicine
    • physicians / biologists
    • politicians
    • social workers/ teachers
    • parents of FAS children
  • data - statistics - numbers
  • personal stories
    • about "Adam" from the book The Broken Cord
    • Louise Erdrich (his wife)
  • lists
    • what was important in the last 12 months
    • last 4 years
    • etc.
  • questions
  • reminders
  • repetition of thesis
  • repetition of important items
  • comparisons of opposites (social class, educational level. . . .)
  • as he goes along he notes where he is in the speech re A . . . B . . . C
  • statements about the severity of the problem, and why you should care
  • analogy
    • blind woman walking child across the street
  • solutions to the problem
  • appeals to people in the room
  • question and answer session
  • (back to outline)

Bibliography: (back to outline)

  • Michael Dorris -- Mankato State University

  • The Moyers Collection, A World of Ideas: The Broken Cord with Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris. Films for the Humanities and Sciences (28 min., 1994, VC 3250)
    • Bill Moyers interviews writers Louise Erdrich and Michael Dorris who talk about their work, their American Indian heritage, fetal alcohol syndrome, and parenthood.
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